Chatsworth hits the big screen this December.
The “Made in Chatsworth” documentary tells the story of one of the most unique and vibrant townships in the country, according to publisher turned film-maker Anivesh Singh.
Four years ago, he turned into print local historian Kiru Naidoo’s memoir of the same title.
“The response to the book both here and abroad was nothing short of amazing with the first edition selling out within months,” said Singh.
At one of the launches at B. Nagiah’s butchery in Midrand, one of the old residents of Chatsworth said: “Wouldn’t it be nice to see ourselves in a movie?”
The idea fascinated Singh. He was aware that making movies was costly, but he entertained the dream that the book could make it to the big screen. Funding was not easily available, especially for newcomers without a movie track record.
“Our projects usually fly by the seat of our pants with hardly a brass farthing in any of the pockets,” laughed the heritage publisher, who churned out close to 40 books in the last five years. He is also one of the drivers behind the Durban International Book Fair in Africa’s only Unesco world city of literature.
Singh floated the idea of a movie among his followers on social media. The idea was to tap crowdfunding from the fans of Chatsworth, who found themselves all over the country and in every corner of the globe.
While money to meet the production costs has come in, it is still short of the target. Naidoo, however, is optimistic that neither of them will have to mortgage their homes yet again to fund their crazy ventures.
“Pray and it will be done,” he said.
The diversity of worship in the township is a large part of the documentary. Naidoo said the first chunk of footage in the cutting room showed the rising sun over Chatsworth from the grounds of the Siva Alayam perched on a hilltop where the first houses were built in Bayview in 1962.
The camera then moves to other units showing the Velankanni Catholic Church, the Sarva Dharma Ashram, Sheme worship sites, the Gurudwara, musjids, the Magazine Barracks Vishnu Temple and other holy spots.
“Prayer is where the people are at,” said Naidoo, as he reflected on the fact that indentured workers originating in a South Indian fishing village brought their traditions and relics from Vailankanni to honour in their new African home.
Similarly, the municipal workers of the Durban Corporation, who were forcibly removed by the 1950 apartheid Group Areas Act from their homes in the Magazine Barracks on the Durban beachfront, rebuilt their temple in Westcliff brick-by-brick from their meagre wages.
“Chatsworth is a lesson in religious harmony. We have mosques next door to churches and temples and never a quarrel between them unlike so many troubled places on the planet.”
While the documentary breathes in the smells, sights and sounds of Chatsworth from its markets to its eateries, it also dwells on some of the politics.
The vagaries of history forced it to identify as a segregated Indian township under the apartheid design.
“The face of Chatsworth has changed so much that Verwoerd would be rolling in his grave,” said Singh.
He refers to the 2011 Census by Statistics South Africa (2022 findings are not yet updated), which showed that 60% of Chatsworth residents were Indian compared with 38.2% being black African. Just over 62% Chatsworth residents speak English, while 26% speak Zulu, 5.7% speak Xhosa and 1.3% record Sotho as a home language.
“Regrettably Bhojpuri, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu are statistically insignificant with even granny now speaking English.“
Naidoo believes that there is an under-counting of Chatsworth’s population with the official numbers showing under 200 000.
“Chatsworth is bursting at the seams with no new state investment in housing and little if any private land to accommodate those living in garages, wendy houses and shacks.“
The film-maker hopes the documentary will shine a spotlight on Chatsworth’s joys and jeopardies, mansions and clogged manholes. Naidoo’s main concern is that Chatsworth should not be on the sidelines of history as a footnote in the telling of the bigger South African story.
“We are a community of Indian Africans with our sometimes slightly different culture, food and dress but nevertheless a big part of a great South African nationhood. This place started out as matchbox houses, but some of us built mansions out of the matchboxes. We were an uprooted people who laid down roots to build livelihoods. Chatsworth’s special story is that with hard work and unity, one can build something out of nothing.”